Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Africa #9: Taking To The Air

Good news: we get to go up in what is billed as an instance of the world’s third largest hot air balloon. Bad news: the wake-up call for said trip is at 4 am. Still, we struggled up and made it on time for the off, leaving the hotel around 4:45 am for a 50 minute drive to the take-off site. Bumping down yet another dirt road we suddenly slowed and through the windscreen saw a hippo lumbering into view, presumably off foraging for grass. Seems they prefer to feed when its cooler, hence the preference for mud pools during the day and grass munching by night. Glad to see the bloke driving was on the ball because having a collision with a 2 ton, hungry, hungry hippo would doubtless dent even a Land Cruiser’s bodywork. And piss -off the hippo to boot …

The balloons were lying on the ground waiting for us when we arrived, but basically were still at the “kit of parts” stage. These guys have two balloons they use for trips in the Serengeti but the company as a whole does trips across Africa as well as other places around the world.
To get the whole shooting match off the ground involved firstly sticking two petrol powered fans in front of the canopy to force an airstream into it strong enough to get the mouth of the balloon open. Secondly, once at that point the burners are fired up to now drive hot air in there and hence begin the real process of getting these things off the ground. Each basket holds 16 people in 8 compartments, two to each obviously, and the basket has to be entered while it’s still horizontal. No issue for us, more challenging for the elderly or the portly, or indeed those who were both.

Anyway, we were soon aloft and moving at some 20 knots over the Serengeti just as the sun was starting to rise – lovely stuff! While we didn’t spot that much in the way of game whilst up there, we did see hippos in the river, a couple of hyenas searching for food and drifted close to the tree-top nests of vultures perched high-up in the acacia trees. The views were magnificent, and it really was a highlight of the trip to be up there just moving slowly over the African landscape with only the occasional roar of the burner to be heard as the pilot gave us a bit more height when needed.

All too soon it was time to land, though I have to say by then I was more than ready for breakfast and the advertised glass or two of champagne. We drove a few miles away to a long table laid out with silverware, linens and stemware, all under a tree somewhere out in the bush. Breakfast was the full-up English affair, cooked on a burner from the balloon team. Sitting there, in the warming morning light of another new day, sipping a glass of champagne and tucking into sausage, bacon and eggs really was a great experience. Definitely a highlight of the trip, regardless of whatever else we might see or do. Highly recommended.

Back to the animals. We headed out in a different direction today heading towards a part of the Serengeti that is hilly and sports large rock outcrops, and is known to be a hangout for rhino and lions. However, today the animal gods decreed that we’d see neither of those, preferring instead to show us a cheetah and her cub. Behind them in the long grass was clearly visible an impala that looked to be a fresh kill. The cheetah was resting up after the exertion and taking a breather before eating. Seems they prefer to wait for dinner, but not too long because at some point the scavengers figure out there’s a meal to be had and they’ll be all over the carcass which means more hassle and less food for the cats.

No comments: